On a sub-zero December evening, Tyson Steele awoke to find the roof...
The Camp Fire is being called the worst California wildfire in the state’s history and one of the deadliest in the entire country. It ravaged over 150,000 acres and authorities are still sifting through the damage and documenting fatalities. It’s hard to imagine what it’d be like to lose your home, all your belongings, and be indefinitely displaced by a fire that many sources are saying traveled at approximately 5 miles a minute. Imagine trying to evacuate your house while this hellish wall of flame is quickly approaching, not knowing what to take with you — every second spent inside is one second less you'll have to escape the inferno.
While Robert Bruner survived with his life and his family, he’s suffered a great loss financially and emotionally, along with many others whose town was virtually destroyed. Thankful to be alive and relay what he went through, we sat down with Robert so he could recount the harrowing story of a day he’ll never forget. Like many of us, Robert never thought such a severe tragedy would befall him one day, and he’d be living through an event he read about in RECOIL OFFGRID.
The timestamped photos below were taken by Robert during his escape from the fire and appear in chronological order.
RECOIL OFFGRID: What city was your house located in?
Robert Bruner: In Paradise, California. The reports are still varied on how much of the city is actually destroyed, but there’s nothing left. Downtown is somewhat intact, but that’s only because they didn’t have the trees that the residential section had. It was just jumping from tree to tree and there was no way they could get a handle on it.
What’s the population there?
RB: The reports circulating that there’s about 26,000 people are way off. There’s significantly more people. It’s somewhere between 30,000 to 37,000. There’s been a huge boom up there because the rent in Chico, California, has gone up quite a bit. Everyone was moving up into Paradise, because there were some nice, expensive houses up there and it was cheaper to build too.
How long have you lived there?
RB: About seven years now.
Were there any significant fires in the past that threatened that community or damaged it?
RB: When we first moved down, we kept hearing about the big one of 2008. I guess that one was a few years before we moved in and was just south of town. They fought really hard to keep that out of town. Last year we had a fire just to the west that’d come up the canyon wall and they were afraid that one was going to go into town, but they stopped that one too. Two years ago we had a fairly significant fire that was in the same area as this year’s was, but they were able to get the bombers in right away and stopped that. It didn’t have the winds we had this time so they were able to get a handle on it and because of that we never thought what happened could happen.
Walk us through the initial phases of learning about the fire and what was going on.
RB: My wife left for work at about 7 a.m. The sun wasn’t up yet and it didn’t really smell like a fire. That was strange too, because we didn’t smell it in Chico for about a day and a half after. When I left about 7:20 I noticed the plume. As I was driving into work I kept looking at the cloud thinking something wasn’t right and I should turn around. It looked bad, but it also looked like two years ago. I kept thinking, OK, it’s early enough, they’ll be able to get a handle on it. At that point on the radio, it was being talked about, and the fire had a different name. It wasn’t called the Camp Fire yet; they were calling it something else I can’t remember. It was 10 acres at that point or thereabout.
When I got into work, everyone was talking about it, and a couple of guys hadn’t shown up because they wanted to stay home. One of my coworkers, his wife worked at the hospital and at about 8:30 he got a call saying they were being evacuated. So I left because I had no insurance and wanted to save what I could. The fire, from where we were, was only about 5 to 6 miles. I did 90 mph the whole way home and avoided what looked to be a road block, went through some back roads, got home, and the sky was completely orange. The wind was extremely strong, and as soon as I got out of the car all I could hear were explosions.
Do you know what it was?
RB: Propane tanks. It was both barbecues and some of the houses up there are on propane. You could tell the difference when a barbecue cylinder was going off and a whole house one went off because it shook the ground and the windows in the house. I got home, put on a mask and goggles, and went to the safe we’d recently put all our important stuff in. I want to say that you’d recently done an article on fires.
Yes, on fire suppression. [You can read it here.]
RB: We had gone around previously and tried to move some leaves and whatnot away from our duplex. And we’d contacted the property management company to come down and cut down trees that’d become overgrown and a lot of brush, and we never heard back.
How old was your duplex?
RB: Probably mid-1970s.
Did it have a wood shingle roof?
RB: No it had regular, composite shingles.
Did you own the duplex or were you renting?
RB: Renting. When I got home, I went straight to the safe, called my wife, and told her I thought it was bad and this was probably it. I asked her what she wanted to save, and she told me to grab supplies for our baby and a number of other things. I grabbed that stuff, some tools, and every time I went in and out of the house it was getting darker, the wind was getting stronger, and the debris was just pelting me the whole time. Every time I’d open the car door, ash and debris would fly right into the car. It just got to the point where I knew I just couldn’t stay any longer and one of my coworkers told me not to stay too long or I’d be trapped. There were several points I thought I might not make it out. I got everything I could together, said goodbye to the rest of our belongings, and that was it. I couldn’t stay any longer.
What did you take with you?
RB: Documents in the safe, firearms — everyone always tells me that firearms are replaceable but certainly not in California — stuff for my son, an inflatable bed, his stuffed animals, as many clothes as I could fit. I had paper shopping bags I was throwing everything in and got some of my wife’s jewelry, but forgot her wedding ring. She’d not worn it that day and I didn’t know where it was or if it was even there. I grabbed our laptops and our shower bags. We travel a lot between family members so our shower bags were usually always packed so I have my bug-out bag and my son has his bag plus a medicine bag with stuff he needs.
How many children do you have?
And he was at school?
RB: Yes, we were extremely fortunate that my wife and I work in Chico and his daycare is there as well.
How old is he?
RB: He’s 4, so not technically a baby anymore.
How much time did you feel like you had to grab your supplies and get out?
RB: It was about an hour. The last few times I went in and out of the house, I was like, I’ve gotta go, I can’t stay anymore. At a couple points I was walking around the house with my hands out, saying, “Everything’s gotta go! I don’t know what to take!” And I kept telling myself to calm down and focus. I would’ve hated to have an EMT take my blood pressure at that point. It was just like, what do you take? I had the important stuff, but there was just so much stuff and so many memories that can’t be replaced. My car was filling up and I only have a two-door Honda. There was only so much stuff I could take. The trunk was completely full, the backseat was probably 90% full, plus my son’s car seat back there, and the passenger seat was completely full.
Is there anything in particular you regret leaving behind or couldn’t find?
RB: I do freelance comic book illustration and all my artwork was lost. Ninety-percent of my tools were lost. At one point I’d gone over to where I keep my supplies and I just looked at it shaking my head thinking it all needs to go, what can I do? I grabbed my brushes and some expensive pens, and didn’t know what else to do. My artwork is irreplaceable, there’s nothing I can do about that. The tools are replaceable, but that’s a significant amount of money. Plus my wife’s wedding rings — we’re hoping that when we’re allowed to go back that they’re still there.
So you were packed up after about an hour and had to leave. Where did you go?
RB: So there’s three main roads going through Paradise. There’s Skyway, Clark, and Pence, which is where the hospital was. I was in between Clark and Pence, closer to Clark. It took me about 25 minutes to go what’d usually take me a minute. And, when my wife and I talked about it later, she kept saying that she didn’t think I believed it was this serious. And looking back I think she was right. I kept thinking, it can’t be this bad, the town’s not going to burn, they’re not going to let a whole town burn. When I finally got up to the intersection after 25 minutes, the police were directing traffic, and they didn’t have any protection on, no masks, they were just directing traffic with flashlights. I thought, If they’re here it can’t be that bad. Then I saw the people running. Then I started thinking, If people are running, this is really bad because that means they’ve abandoned their cars.
It took me three hours to get down. The first evacuation route they sent me down, there was a really nice house overlooking the route and it exploded! It exploded so high I couldn’t see the top of the explosion above the roof of my car. As it came down, the wind was blowing that fire onto the opposing hill and it immediately set that hill on fire. I was looking at that, and I was like, I can’t go this way. The firemen were coming up telling people, before the house exploded, that everyone was going to get out, and to stay in our cars and not to leave your car. Then the explosion. I backed up to turn around, and a fireman came up and was beating on my window, and he said, “Don’t leave until the car in front of you leaves.” I was like, “OK, OK, no problem.”
So I sat there waiting, and then the embers started coming down. There were buckets of embers coming down at a time. I was thinking, This is every man for himself, I can’t listen to the firemen. So I turned around the first chance I could, went up, and there was a tree that was on fire I had to drive past. The heat was so intense I thought it’d set the car on fire. Then I was stopped behind a truck and a bucket of embers fell down and exploded when it hit the ground, rolled off the side of the road, and immediately caught the side of the road on fire. There was no time between it hitting the brush there to becoming fire. I went down another road and drove past a friend’s house and it looked like their house was OK. I thought maybe the fire wouldn’t make it that far. I made really good time and then I got stuck in traffic again and was stuck there for an hour.
I slid the sunroof open on my car and this time I was looking for embers. At this point, I thought if I started seeing embers I’d have to make a run for it. I remember looking back in my backseat and wondering if all this stuff was worth it. I’m listening to the radio and they were saying the fire had made it to the main street, Skyway, and I couldn’t go back toward my home or go south. I knew the fire had almost completely encircled Paradise. I was sitting there so long and had to get out to go to the bathroom. As I got out to go, then this guy comes running down the road and said, “The road’s on fire, we have to back up, we have to turn around!” At this point I’m thinking there was nowhere to go, we couldn’t go backward because the fire is that way.
I’d just passed a right turn. I was two cars ahead, the two cars in back of me backed up, went that way, and was like, screw it. I backed up, cut some people off and immediately went out that way and worked my way around, got to Skyway, and everything was on fire. The trees, the houses, the road, everything was on fire. There were downed power poles shooting sparks out and the sparks don’t look like they do in the movie. It looks completely different. It’s like water on fire that’s coming out. I made it down, and back to work about 1 o’clock and everybody I work with had all lost their houses, every single one of them. All of their families were there and all you heard was silence all night long.
Any idea how fast the fire was traveling?
RB: The number they’ve been pushing out is a football field a second. Because of the winds, I could see that. The winds were so strong. When I was in the house, because of the amount of sirens I could hear, I knew the police were in the area. I’d left my headlights on so if they passed me they’d know someone was in the house. A couple times I thought they were knocking on the door, but it turned out it was the wind slamming the screen door against the side of the house.
How long after you departed with your belongings did you find out your home had been destroyed?
RB: It took us a while. We have a friend who works for PG&E, and we gave him the address to see if he could have someone go up and check. How our house was set up was that there were two duplexes that shared a common driveway. The duplex across the driveway made it, but ours didn’t. So we’re talking 30 to 40 feet between the two.
What was it like when you found out?
RB: I knew. My wife was holding out hope like you wouldn’t believe, but I kept saying to her, “You weren’t there and don’t know how bad it was.” I knew when I said goodbye to the place that was it. For me it was just survival at that point, and I knew it was all gone. On my first evacuation route, I was looking back and all I could see was fire in back of the trees and it slowly came up to the tops of the trees and that was all toward where we lived. I knew everything was lost, but didn’t know the extent of damage to the town.
Have you been back to see the aftermath yet?
RB: No, we were supposed to go back at a certain point and then it got pushed back and now they’re telling us we’ll be allowed back either before or after Christmas.
Do you think there were any preventive measures you could’ve taken to save your home or at least give it a better chance of surviving?
RB: Yes, the defensible space. We needed that and we’d called to get someone out to take care of it because we had a tree two feet from our fence. That fence was maybe five feet from the house. Plus it was on an abandoned olive orchard. We never found out who owned that land and they didn’t maintain it at all. So there was a lot of brush, but I think it was an ember that did it. They were just falling out of the sky in buckets. The house in back of us and the house across from us didn’t burn, plus there was a retirement home directly in back of them, and that was spared. Wind was blowing directly in our path and I have no idea why those other houses survived.
If you had to repeat the experience, what would you have done differently?
RB: I definitely would’ve had insurance. We’d talked about it, but when I thought about insurance I always associated it with theft. I lived in Sacramento for nine years and had a lot of problems with theft there, so I never thought about it for fire. We’re definitely going to have insurance when we get another place. As far as when I went back up there, I’d do it again because we are better off for what I was able to save than people who didn’t save anything. The things I did save, some could be replaced and some couldn’t. It has made things somewhat easier for us. My biggest thought was I need to make my son as comfortable as I can during this. I think we should’ve got a bigger safe to put more stuff in so it would have been a bit more of a one-stop shop for saving stuff. One thing I kept thinking that I didn’t want to spend the time on was to turn the hose on full blast and put it up on the roof. Maybe it would’ve worked, but maybe it wouldn’t, but I thought the amount of time I’d spend on it could be put toward putting a couple loads in the car.
Any advice to the average homeowner you’ve learned from this on preparing for a fire?
RB: I think defensible space is key. We did what we could, but since we didn’t own the place there was only so much we could do. If it were my own place I would’ve chopped down the trees that were close and gotten the brush taken care of myself. Supposedly that area was private property and we couldn’t find out who owned it. The people that stayed up there that fought the fire and saved their houses, that’s what they did. They went out, got everything they could away from their house, and were attacking the flames with whatever water source they could, but part of the problem was the city cut the water halfway through the fire.
Any idea why?
RB: I’d assume because of the amount of damage they knew was happening already they didn’t want water shooting out after a house was burned down and for the system to lose pressure. I’m not sure if it works that way. It became clear early on in the fire when I was up there that they were not trying to fight the fire. Their sole goal was to get people out and it didn’t work as well as they would’ve liked. There were a lot of deaths and one of the streets people died on, I was on that street. That’s one of the fears I had when I was up there. There was so much traffic it was complete gridlock in every direction. There’s only a few ways in and out of town and they had blocked one of them immediately because that’s where the fire originated and then it slowly started picking off all the other ways in and out.
Have they determined how it started yet?
RB: Everyone’s waiting to find out, but the lawyers up here, it’s unbelievable the amount of lawyers who have a presence up here right now. They’re on the TV, radio, billboards, town hall meetings at the hotels around here. The other day they came out and said a transformer or some type of equipment was found at or near the ignition source that had bullet holes in it. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but I can’t imagine why someone would shoot at one.
How did you learn about that particular finding?
RB: One of my coworkers had it posted to his Facebook from one of his family members and it was on some news channel. [Editor's Note: Here's an article from The Sacramento Bee with more details about the damaged PG&E equipment.]
So you had no insurance at all?
RB: No, but FEMA has been extremely good. I know they get a lot of bad rap, but aside from one individual, they’ve been extremely good at getting information to us and doing what they can to help.
What are they doing to help exactly?
RB: I filled out my form online the day after the fire and they called me the next day. They took a statement, wanted additional info, and within a little over a week they had someone at the property confirming it was a total loss so everything seems to be happening very quickly. They gave us a check solely for rent and living expenses as far as housing.
How much did they give you?
RB: $2,200. It seems like everyone who isn’t insured is getting that amount, but it’s only to be put toward some sort of housing/shelter arrangements.
Where are you living now?
RB: My work has been extremely generous and we have six trailers in back of my work that are housing six families. There was a total of 12 of us affected by the fire, only one of my coworkers' houses survived, but he still can’t get back in. It’s been amazing, the generosity of the community and that the owner of the company has extended to us. We have been extremely fortunate. Every place we’ve gone to eat, they’ve extended discounts to us. It’s mind-blowing what people have done to help. Within the first few days we got massive amounts of clothing. The local organizations, the Lions, Masonics, Elks, everybody has been pitching in. Nothing’s happened like this in recent history where an entire town has been lost.
How do you think this will affect your preparation measures going forward?
RB: I love your magazine and have been a fan since Issue No. 1. My wife has always kind of shrugged her nose at it. We watched Doomsday Preppers once in a while, and a lot of my friends are prepping in one way or another. There’s a lot of things I really enjoy from the magazine, some of which I’ve incorporated. I think bushcraft applies a lot to me. We had several 5-gallon buckets we had our preps in. Our food, batteries, ammo, lanterns, and stuff we’d accrued over the years, and not once did I think about grabbing it.
Also, both of our cars going forward will have cell phone chargers both for the cigarette lighters and for the wall. The day after we went, every single place that would have that was completely sold out. Nobody thought about it until they needed it and then everyone sold out. Best Buy, Target, K-Mart, the different carriers, everyone sold out. So I told my wife that we will have this in our cars going forward because that was a huge issue.
Because we’d sat down a few months ago and stored a bunch of valuables in our safe, my wife and I agree that was the best thing we did. We’ve got our birth certificates, we’ve got our social security cards, we’ve got pink slips to the cars, firearms, some other valuables that were in there. I think this experience opened up her eyes that you need to have all the important stuff in one spot.
Did you leave those buckets of emergency gear behind because you felt it was expendable?
RB: I’ve always prepped for either something that was either from a foreign power or some type of economic problems. I prepped for self-sufficiency in terms of food, water, guns, ammo. In a fire none of it meant anything. I knew we’d have a place to go, friends or family we could stay with, so what’d typically be perceived as a prep was meaningless and personal property became more important. A baby book at that point was more important and precious than a case of MREs. Moving forward, once we settle down, water is always a huge prep because we’d lose power once in a while up there. Also, going forward, bushcraft skills is a better prep because it shifts the focus of a material prep to you being the prep. If I had to abandon the car and run, I am the most important prep for my family. Everything else is meaningless when it comes down to it. I need to see my family again.
What bushcraft skills do you think would be applicable in this situation?
RB: Maybe how to fell a tree. I would definitely want to learn, especially if we were on our own land, I’d have taken care of the trees myself. They were all olive trees where I was, which aren’t usually more than 15 feet tall so that’s something you could do yourself with a chainsaw.
Has there been any confirmation that looters have started scavenging the area?
RB: Oh yeah. We watched something on the news of a man staying there with someone else to protect his mother who was blind and bedridden. One of my coworkers knows him a little, but his story is on YouTube. In the video he says he was seeing looters every night. [Editor's Note: This article from The Sacramento Bee provides some examples of looters arrested in Paradise, including two men who were allegedly caught inside an evacuated residence with a handgun, loaded magazines, meth and heroin.]
Are the police trying to thwart any of that?
RB: Everything we’ve heard, the police are there. The National Guard was here too and they had an extremely strong presence and weren’t letting anyone in. Supposedly they were up there patrolling, but Paradise is very rural and if you know the area you can get in. We know people who have gone back in and they say it takes about eight hours to get up the hill and work your way around, but you can get in. They can’t just close off the entire town. The terrain is too rugged and they can’t possibly defend everywhere.
People are getting in if they want to. If they’re that determined, they will get in. There are houses that made it. My hope is that the police are guarding the houses are there, but from the picture of our house that we’ve seen, there is still wreckage to go through. So does that mean people are picking through it? We just don’t know, and there’s no way to get any information about our house. We’re hoping the police are up there doing their job, because the National Guard left. PG&E has 24-hour presence up there. They have a base camp just west of town and have somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 people up there.
The electrical apparatus that may be to blame, is it part of a larger facility or … ?
RB: From what we’ve heard, it was a transformer or something similar that was sparking the day before or that night, and they’d received calls that something was going on with this pole, and then early the next morning was when the fire broke out. So it’s interesting if it was someone shooting at it, but I don’t know and it’s one of those things that it may take a long time to find out. If PG&E is liable, they’re going to have to lawyer up and carefully craft what their response will be. And they’re already going to have what their payout packages are going to be figured out, and like I said, the lawyer presence up here is already very heavy, but I want to wait and see what the factual result is. If it is PG&E’s equipment that failed, it may be the end of that company.
You mentioned overgrowth on an abandoned orchard your property was on and requests made to your property manager to have it removed. Do you think you have any legal recourse there?
RB: The burden of proof is going to be on me. The management company’s office was destroyed, we cannot contact them by any means. They have our deposit, we have paid rent, we’ve had to get a lawyer to get our pro-rated rent and deposit back. It’s disheartening because the management company just changed. We’d sent photos to the previous management company and reached out several times to them, but never heard anything back. Then when the new company took over we thought we’d get something done, and we’d sent a letter explaining what our issues with the property were, but never heard anything back. They’ve been completely incommunicado. We have no proof of anything we’ve given them, we have no way of getting a hold of them. We do have some pictures, but I don’t know what that would do as far as a case against them. I’m not sure what we can do or if we have any legal course of action.
To donate to Robert and his family you can visit www.gofundme.com/robert-and-rebecca-bruner-campfire. (Note: RECOIL OFFGRID is not affiliated with this donation process — funds donated through the GoFundMe go directly to the Bruner family.) You can also follow Robert on Instagram at @near_zero.